Foster care fiasco – Agency’s grip on child care too loose

Bradenton Herald

News – Our Take
Foster care fiasco
Agency’s grip on child care too loose

Over the past few months, the track record of the Florida Department of Children and Families is one of a dysfunctional agency.

From losing track of hundreds of foster children taking powerful psychiatric drugs to discovering dozens of child-welfare workers had falsified reports, the department show signs calling for another overhaul.

This comes just seven years after the previous restructuring, in which the agency outsourced child-safety workers after a caseworker stopped visiting one foster child. The 5-year-old Miami girl went missing and has never been located.

After the April suicide of a 7-year-old on psychotropic medication, DCF reviewed files and found hundreds of previously uncounted foster children taking Risperdal and Adderall.

Furthermore, the agency failed to allow such medications only with a court order or parental approval in more than 400 cases. That violates a 2005 state law. With pediatric prescriptions of such antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs as Risperdal and Adderall, warnings of suicide have been on the rise. Yet hundreds of children slipped through the system.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon, on the job only since October, quickly clamped down on this problem by ordering judicial review of prescriptions and informed consent from parents.

But part of the quandary in the case of the 7-year-old boy who hanged himself is the caseworker repeatedly claimed the mother agreed to the medications, and that was not so.

Now comes the most recent fiasco — with more than 70 caseworkers submitting false reports over the past two years. That malfeasance caused 14 foster children to be left in unsafe homes and the agency to lose track of at least another six.

Uncovered in an Orlando Sentinel investigation published Sunday, this is disturbing news about caseworkers lacking in morality and responsibility.

One employee lied about making home visits to a child who ended up staying with an uncle facing child-rape charges — a monstrous scenario that should have resulted in felony charges against the worker for filing false reports about children in foster care, as state law allows.

Several other cases the Sentinel unearthed are just as unsettling. Half the falsified reports were filed by DCF employees and half by workers for private contractors. While outsourcing raises questions, tighter oversight of all caseworkers should be implemented.

While almost all of the 70 deceitful caseworkers got fired or quit, the newspaper also learned that half of them did face prosecution, a far more deserving outcome.

Sheldon pledges closer policing of foster care workers. That’s a must. The agency must weed out lazy and dishonest caseworkers.

To that end, the agency plans to provide hand-held global-positioning systems. While that will let caseworkers write reports in the field, more importantly, the agency will be able to verify home visits occurred. That’s one positive step.

Foster children are the most vulnerable among us, completely dependent on the state for protection and care. They deserve a strong agency and dedicated caseworkers.

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